Winona County took a step towards completing the third in its trio of county parks last Tuesday by approving a conceptual plan for Stone Point Park. However, lingering questions remain — namely, how people will get there and how it will be paid for.
The bulk of the plan's spending proposal — $509,000 of the total $689,000 — would pay for paving and widening Stone Point Road, a concept opposed by some township officials.
There are only two ways to get to the former landfill and proposed park site: the township-owned Stone Point Road and county-owned County Landfill Road. Both gravel roads, the landfill road curves up a steep slope while Stone Point Road takes a longer, more gradual route up the hill and past several farms. The county highway department advised that the landfill road presented challenges as an access to the park. Its steep grade would require speedy plowing and sanding to keep it open in the winter and is prone to erosion, staff explained. That advice prompted the Parks and Environment Committee to recommend Stone Point Road as the primary access to the park.
However, paving Stone Point Road also means a county takeover of the road. "The county is never going to pave a township road," Wilson Township Board member Bob Peterson explained. County staff confirmed, the county would need to take ownership of Stone Point Road before paving it.
Since townships receive state aid based on the mileage of roads they maintain, Wilson officials were understandably unexcited about the proposal. County staff met informally with township board chairman Leon Bowman last week and suggested a swap: Stone Point Road for East Burns Valley Road. Bowman declined. East Burns Valley Road, he explained, "is pretty much a maintenance nightmare" and would be a bad trade for the township.
"Our suggestion is that they use the old dump road," Bowman continued, referring to County Landfill Road, which is less than half the length of Stone Point Road. "It'd be a real short pavement program for them," he said.
"It's not clear to me why it is they think that road is inadequate," Peterson said of County Landfill Road. It is a good road, and for years, dump trucks made it up the incline without problems, he added.
"It's a very steep road," said parks committee chairman Todd Paddock in an interview. "We have concerns about what will that mean for visitors to the park, especially in the winter. Perhaps trash trucks could make it up, but I don't know about normal cars," he added. Paddock said he was open to reconsidering, but so far the committee and county staff have maintained that paving Stone Point Road is a priority for the park. If the County Landfill Road was workable that would be great, he said. The county "already has the road, so that's one less point of disagreement," he continued.
"None of us are pleased with having to blacktop a road for a half million dollars," Paddock continued. County staff indicated that paving and widening would be needed to handle park traffic.
The farmers along Stone Point Road plant their crops right up to the road's narrow right-of-way and enjoy being on a quiet, dead-end road, Peterson said. "None of them are in favor of that thing being a major thoroughfare," he added.
Landowners know it is better to access your land through roads you own and the county should do the same, county commissioner Marcia Ward said at a recent board meeting, advocating for the use of the county-owned landfill road. "At this point in time I'm not going to divert any road funds to a new road. I've got roads in my district that need more attention," she added.
Wilson Township has a certain amount of power in negotiations over the issue. The only township in Winona County with its own zoning laws, Wilson has permitting authority over the proposed park site, and, according to county planners, is likely to require a Conditional Unit Permit (CUP) for the project. The full Wilson Township Board will discuss the park plan for the first time on Monday. Bowman and Peterson did not express opposition to the park itself.
Additionally, county commissioners Wayne Valentine, Steve Jacob, and Ward expressed reluctance to spend county tax dollars on the park, in general. The park plan is still just a plan, and no funding has been sought from the board. County staff will apply for the first of a dozen grants this month.
Jacob casts hesitant yes vote
Jacob joined his fellow board members in a unanimous vote to approve the plan, but voiced his concerns over the plan and an unexpected vote to approve it.
"In my area, in western Winona County, when you bring up Stone Point Park you just get a blank look," Jacob said. He suggested holding an informational meeting to seek more public input on the new plan. "I want to make sure that we're communicating with the entire community, not just people who might be supportive of it," he said. By not selling the $1.3 million parcel and reaping future property taxes from it, the county is already investing a lot in the park, Jacob argued.
Commissioner Marcia Ward responded that revenue-generating uses like renting part of the site to farmers or quarrying aggregate in sections of the property are not being ruled out by adopting the park plan.
The park plan was not scheduled for a vote, but after County Planning and Environmental Services Director Jason Gilman informed the board of an upcoming deadline for grant applications, the board opted to proceed with an immediate vote.
Citizens contacted Jacob and board chairman Wayne Valentine before the meeting agenda was released, urging them to vote for the park, Valentine and Jacob said. Valentine said that made him curious about "how the public knew that we were going to vote on it before we did?" When the agenda was publicly released, it indicated that there would not be a vote on the park issue. "It's great that these people are participating, but I'm concerned that people on the other side do not have access to all the information," Jacob said.
Gilman explained that the Parks and Environment Committee would have known the park plan was coming before the board prior to the finalization of the County Board Agenda. Members of that committee are adamant supporters of the park plan and may have encouraged like-minded friends to contact the board, assuming that a vote would occur, he suggested.